17.02.17, Spieser, Images du Christ

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Georgi Parpulov

The Medieval Review 17.02.17

Spieser, Jean-Michel. Images du Christ: Des catacombes aux lendemains de l'iconoclasme. Genève: Librairie Droz, 2015. pp. 546. ISBN: 978-2-600-00557-9 (paperback).

Reviewed by:
Georgi Parpulov
Independent Scholar, Plovdiv, Bulgaria

Jesus Christ's "many faces" in pictorial art can be presented either as a kaleidoscopic panorama or in coherent sequence. Having chosen the latter approach, Spieser focuses on lines of développement, or évolution, whose course and dynamics need to be grasped (23, 65, 71, 98, 181, 230, 240, 303, 318, 396, 448, etc.). He observes, over the five centuries covered in his book, a historic shift from figure to likeness: generic images of Christ slowly gave way to facially recognizable depictions of Him; these, in turn, were gradually narrowed down to a few characteristic types, one of which came to be considered an actual portrait.

"Images, generally speaking, are made in order to be understood" (26). "[A]ll images relate to [some] broader semantic and cognitive system of which they form part" (15). "[M]ost early Christian images were not produced without reflecting on their meaning" (400), "it is only outside of their context and for a viewer unfamiliar with it--a historian, for instance--that their sense is not clear" (94).

At first, Christian art did not retell biblical stories in any detail (30, 67, 108), but simply rendered visible certain concepts which most believers shared, e.g. that of salvation (11, 33, 96, 107, 368). It created "a new set of images which reinforce[d] Christian identity, being the product of a common knowledge (savoir partagé)" (14). Depictions and texts began to echo each other in the collective memory of the faithful, and "a novel world of familiar imagery came into being" (22).

Following the legal establishment of the faith under Emperor Constantine, such images "end up giving way to other [more concrete] ones which require to be understood historically (de manière historique)" (163). This development reflects "one of the strongest claims of Christianity that radically distinguishes it from traditional religions: to be recognised as rooted in history" (163), "to inscribe itself in time and to insist on the historicity of the facts upon which it is based" (194).

At the same moment, certain non-narrative compositions reveal "a concern no more just for representing the divinity but for making it present" (256), "showing a Christ who is no longer the historically known Christ (le Christ dans sa dimension historique)" (263). "These images are not perceived like a picture at which the faithful look. Worshippers understood them as demonstrating the presence of the Lord in the sanctuary" (340). "[S]uch representations point to the divinity of Christ, or more precisely, to the divinity through Christ...He is not depicted as the Word of God anymore, but rather as an image of God Himself" (266), "beyond any reference to His earthly life" (307).

By circa 500, compositions of this latter, "transcendental" kind were being modified so as to impose a symbolic distance between image and beholder: Christ's figure is emphatically enlarged (372); He no longer merely confronts the faithful but is involved in some sort of action (369); He may be shown "above this world", seated upon a globe, on a rainbow, or between the sun and moon (373-7, 383); when He appears in a vision, the visionaries (prophets, apostles) are themselves depicted, reminding viewers that looking at an image does not make one an actual participant in the scene (370-2, 396). "[I]nstead of suggesting to those who pray in front of these apses that they are in the presence of a vision, the apse contains a depiction of the vision granted to a prophet" (380); "the believer no longer sees simply God being present, but a scene in which God is represented" (397).

"Conceptually, there was thus no problem in depicting Christ (donner une forme au Christ) without posing the question of his portrait; an image that corresponded to the qualities attributed to Him was enough" (416-17). However, "the weight of the image in Greco-Roman civilization, centuries of representing the gods in human form" posed a risk of confusing Jesus "with another divine or mythological figure" (410). The resultant need for differentiation led to inventing a typical image of the mature, bearded Christ (476-7). In the course of the sixth and seventh centuries, this image grew increasingly familiar and began to be perceived as an actual likeness. "[T]he necessity of a portrait for Christ imposed itself within a thought-system, one of whose principal [and decisively novel] elements...is [Christianity's] claimed and recognised rootedness in history." There was "a barely perceptible but [nonetheless] real movement toward a more 'realistic', more 'historical' reading of images--at the expense of the more symbolic one. In other words, a more direct connection is expected between an image and what it represents" (420).

"[T]his development...did not occur in a single moment and was hardly ever accounted for (théorisée) by those who were, no doubt unconsciously, its agents" (420). Only at a final stage "not just the faithful, when facing an image of Christ, thought they had before them Christ represented in the guise he had during his incarnation, but [also] this feeling was justified by the reasoning of theologians" (421). Hence, "the correspondence text-image must not be treated too simply" (85). "The point is not to establish a connection in which images are dependent on...texts, but to recall that both are created by the human mind (l'esprit humain) from concepts (images mentales) that can be translated with either images or words" (276), "to suggest that both are produced in the same intellectual context" (193). "[T]exts and images alike express and formulate the way in which Christians conceived of Christ" (45).

Lasting iconographic innovations--as opposed to ephemeral novelties which failed to spread because they did not meet what their intended audience expected (42)--result from tensions between the visual and non-visual components of a culture: there was, for instance, "discrepancy (ambiguité) between forms of thought [on the one hand] and imagery derived from ancient types [on the other]...before the system of imagery transformed itself and arrived at acceptable, new images of Christ" (176). Image-making has its autonomous, internal history, based on the continuous use of established visual motifs (159-60): thus, the originally non-Christian image of the good shepherd began--without being outwardly altered and just by virtue of its repeated use in Christian contexts--to be "increasingly perceived as the image of a person. The symbol of salvation became a representation of the Saviour" (66).

Spieser organises his discussion mostly round separate visual themes: the Good Shepherd, the Baptism, Christ's miracles, the Traditio Legis, Christ enthroned, half-length portraits of Christ. These iconographical variations form, as it were, the surface pattern over an underlying plot that traces lines of development as they converge on an increasingly stable portrayal of Christ (308). The book is not a history of images, but a history of early Christianity through images. It demonstrates how visual art can be used as historical source material and discussed in a sustained narrative--rather than a series of vignettes. One can imagine agglomerated essays (more likely than not by several authors) that--instead of what Spieser has done--delve into the inherent ambiguousness of any single monument (53, 64, 111, 256-7, 265, 293, 402), its various potential audiences and levels of reception (59-60, 93, 158, 163, 184, 191, 201), the great social and doctrinal diversity of early Christianity (18-19, 161-2, 418). But I personally do not find such soft-focused scholarship to be of lasting value. Spieser's Images du Christ--subtly and carefully argued, clearly and eloquently written--will certainly be read for decades to come, by students and specialists alike.

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